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Justin Tadlock
On Monday, Automattic announced its Blank Canvas theme on WordPress.com. The goal is to allow end-users to build single-page websites, such as an “about me” or product landing page.
Blank Canvas is a child theme of Seedlet, which Automattic’s Theme Team has been using as a launchpad. One example is its recently-released Spearhead child theme. It also provided the foundational work for the recent Twenty Twenty-One default WordPress theme.
One-page themes are nothing new. Theme builders have been releasing them for years in various forms.
“We’ve been working on block patterns a lot lately, and it became clear that many of the single-page websites we come across daily — collections of links, newsletter signups, etc. — are basically just simple block patterns sitting on an otherwise blank page,” said Kjell Reigstad, the lead developer on the theme. “That being the case, it seemed like WordPress should be able to power these sorts of single-page sites pretty easily. Blank Canvas is an attempt to try that out.”
WordPress is not the ideal platform for the majority of one-page sites. Doing so includes setting up a database, installing the software, and keeping everything updated. The admin interface is not well-suited to those types of sites. WordPress is a content management system. One page is not enough content to need a full-blown CMS to manage. There simply is little upside for the average user to go through the hassle of doing this on even the cheapest of shared hosting.
However, if you have a network where someone else, such as WordPress.com, takes out all the hassle of maintaining the backend and when it does not cost you a dime, WordPress suddenly makes more sense. It becomes an ideal platform for these types of sites.
Frankly, I do not know why they have not pushed this concept sooner. Jason Schuller has made a go of it with Leeflets in the past. Since then, he and Philip Kurth have taken that idea further and launched WP Landing Kit, which builds on the same concept of creating multiple single-page landing sites from one WordPress installation.
In some respects, Blank Canvas offers a glimpse into Full Site Editing. It is almost a stepping stone or a small yet limited preview of things to come. The theme puts the entire design process into a single page and a single editor. Eventually, this will be extended to the whole website.
“I think that’s a great way to think about it,” said Reigstad. “Full Site Editing is coming soon, but in the meantime, Blank Canvas lets you do just a little bit more with Gutenberg than you could before.”
The theme is called Blank Canvas for a reason. Its demo page is literally a blank screen with a footer message. The idea is that the end-user designs their homepage — or their entire site in the case of a single-page website — via the block editor.
For those who need a starting point, the theme comes packaged with six block patterns:
Self-hosted WordPress users can install the theme too. It is currently awaiting review for the theme directory, but they can snag the ZIP file or SVN link from its Trac ticket. For those giving it a test, be sure to disable the title and tagline via the customizer so they do not appear on the front end. That is assuming you want to use the theme as intended. It will also work as a more traditional theme because the Seedlet parent theme covers all the necessary features.
There are differences between the theme on WordPress.com and that submitted to the WordPress.org theme directory. The .ORG version has only four block patterns. The .COM version includes an additional Card pattern, which integrates with Automattic’s Layout Grid plugin. The Email Signup pattern needs Jetpack’s form feature.
Simple conditional checks for Layout Grid or Jetpack before registering the patterns would suffice for users with those plugins installed. “That’s planned,” said Reigstad of adding the missing patterns, “but we just didn’t implement it yet.”
WordPress.com users have something else to look forward to. In November, the service launched over 100 patterns. “One of the nice things is that there are already a lot of patterns out there that seem ready-made for single-page websites,” said Reigstad.
He did say the team is working on bundling more patterns in the future. These may include more “link in bio” designs that expand on the one already in the theme today.
Several of the ideas available in this theme seemed to have started from the WordPress Theme Experiments repository. It features block patterns similar in scope to the Carrd-like theme Reigstad built last October.
“In general, building block-based themes helped redefine our idea of what a theme needed to be,” he said. “We’d tended to think of a theme as a complicated piece of software that accounts for every scenario you throw at it: a blog, custom post types, category pages, search pages, the 404 page, etc.”
Reigstad said that the block-based themes paradigm has forced the Theme Team to start small. Because Full Site Editing is still in flux, its features not ready, the team has built proof-of-concept themes with limited functionality.
“The possibilities for block-based themes have grown considerably since then (as shown by TT1 Blocks, Q, Block-based Bosco, and others), but the early constraints helped spark ideas like that Carrd-inspired theme,” he said. “It turned out that you could build a pretty useful site with just a handful of blocks.
“That mindset definitely informed Blank Canvas — we started small, with just the functionality someone would need to build a single-page site. Since it’s based on a full-featured theme (Seedlet), you can grow with it too.”
Themes Team on .org never allowed blank themes in the repo. If this one is allowed, all of the authors who got the boot before should be (and will have every right to be) very pissed.
If this theme passes the review I’m afraid of the message that will be sent to theme authors on .org. And it’s a very clear one: Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi…
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Yeah, I remember when the “big discussion” about that happened, which revolved around empty themes for page builders.
I actually see this theme as different. It technically supports [almost] everything from WordPress out of the box because it is a child theme of Seedlet. It will absolutely work that way and doesn’t require any third-party plugin integrations. However, it does not support comments, so that is at least one strike against it based on the guidelines.
The big thing that it does is give the user the option to disable the title and tagline. And, it provides several block patterns for building out a full page.
The Themes Team has been more lax as of late when it comes to experimental themes related to the block system though, which I think is a good thing. It probably wouldn’t hurt to revisit its original stance on blank themes altogether.
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Denis: Your comment is the first I’m hearing of this. We want the .org theme directory to be a place that moves design and usability of WordPress forward, so please feel free to ping me on chat. The .org guidelines should evolve with the state of the art.
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Hi Matt.
I remember our talk back in Berlin, we wanted to encourage authors to be more creative, but there were always issues with how to do that. If we would have loosened the requirements, people would try to exploit the system, as some see .org repository as a marketplace. Which on its own isn’t a bad thing (encouraging business), but coupled with a few bad apples could bring problems (which we experienced last year, unfortunately).
I’m all for encouraging people to be more creative. I actually wrote an article about it a while ago (https://infinum.com/the-capsized-eight/gutenberg-wordpress-themes) back when I was a rep. But the problem is that you may have 1000 authors putting blank themes to the repo with few patterns. In the end, you’d get repeating patterns in different colors. We also talked about curating a repo so that we feature the best-designed themes. But somebody has to do that. And in the end, the design is quite a subjective topic. Which is why the idea was kinda abandoned.
It’s time to slowly deprecate the old themes. Make a separate repo for FSE themes only, and work with Themes Team reps on a pattern library. It would be loaded the same way WordPress loads the block plugins can through the admin.
I think that one of the focuses from the decision-makers should be how to handle themes. And I don’t mean like: let’s have a talk every 3-6 months. Take team reps and the shareholders of .org, sit down for a week and brainstorm the strategy of themes in the WordPress ecosystem. From goals to implementation strategy and a good timeframe so that people can prepare. Should there be a review process, and how would it look like? Pinpoint the pains and try to solve the problem.
We had tons of ideas, but nobody got the time for implementation. There needs to be somebody who will spearhead this transition. And take the fallout from the authors who don’t want to change (and there will be such authors).
I guess I’m a bit frustrated at the lack of focus on themes on .org. GB development is changing things. Plugins got new block search, new page design (a few years ago, but still). And themes are always left behind. Only last month or so was there some movement with previewer changes using starter content (which should also be sorted to maybe use patterns). We need a strategy and a clear timeline…
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